Although UFC was able to rebound from the limitations caused by the coronavirus pandemic and figure out of a way to keep business running as usual in 2020, one of the biggest regrets was how much the lack of a live gate seemed to derail Conor McGregor's comeback plans.
McGregor (22-4) had opened the year with a bang by finishing Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone in just 40 seconds at UFC 246 in January following a two-year layoff. The pay-per-view card was a monster success from a business standpoint and appeared to spark a rebirth in McGregor's career after just one UFC appearance in three years.
But the 32-year-old McGregor never got the chance complete his first calendar year with three UFC fights since 2016 like he had hoped for. And considering the content of the private messages he released to the public last year during a public feud with UFC president Dana White, which showed McGregor pushing for a fight against a faded Diego Sanchez, it might be a blessing in disguise.
McGregor was largely given a pass for fighting such a faded version of Cerrone and the fact that White allowed it to be contested at welterweight didn't necessarily speak highly of whether the formerly brash Irishman still had the fire to compete at the elite level. A fight against the 39-year-old Sanchez would've only been received as a major step backwards in terms of matchmaking.
The beauty of the quarantine was that it forced McGregor, a former two-division champion who made enough money in one night boxing Floyd Mayweather in 2017 to never have to work again, to look deep inside himself.
"There was no temptations around, you can't really do anything," McGregor told TSN's Aaron Bronsteter this week. "There was nowhere to go just inside yourself with your own thoughts and become comfortable with your own self. That's it. It was a learning experience and I'm very grateful for the year. I feel the better for it."
Somewhere along the way, McGregor regained the fearless disposition of being willing to fight anyone, at any weight and on any notice that helped fuel his meteoric rise to stardom. When McGregor re-emerged, he signed on for Saturday's rematch against former interim champion Dustin Poirier at UFC 257 in Abu Dhabi in a decision that spoke volumes about his true intentions.
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Had McGregor wanted to, he could've continued competing for years as a "celebrity fighter" seeking advantageous matchups for handsome money without ever truly maximizing what's left inside of him. Having a successful whiskey business on the side can certainly help a fighter of McGregor's stardom make decisions like that.
But McGregor instead chose to get back in line and show by accepting such a dangerous fight in Poirier, who has improved tremendously since their 2014 meeting, that he's serious about regaining his UFC title and doing whatever it takes to author a second chapter of his elite prime.
Asked how he balanced his focus from a percentage standpoint between fighting, business and family during the quarantine, McGregor smiled and said, "One-hundred and twenty percent to each one." From his newfound maturity during interviews to fantastic shape he has appeared to be on social media, it's clear McGregor used the uncertainty of 2020 to find a level of focus that wasn't there in his 2018 loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov and hasn't been seen since 2016.
"I got lost in my practice. I got lost -- or maybe found -- in my family. I put an insane amount of work into my business," McGregor said. "There was nothing else to do with a lot of uncertainty in the world and I made the most of it.
"I'm in amazing shape. I've grown so much in so many areas of fighting. I'm just eager to get to show it. I didn't get my competition in 2020, which I wanted. I want to put my work to the test and put it out there for the fans to see."
The amount of both risk and reward facing McGregor in this fight against Poirier, 32, is hard to overlook. Even though McGregor has resided as a 3-1 betting favorite, Poirier is among the pound-for-pound best fighters in the world and as battled-tested and accomplished as anyone in the division.
Given how deep the division currently is, a loss would be a major setback to McGregor's title hopes. But a victory would almost assuredly lift him to a vacant title fight against the opponent of his choice and an emphatic win -- if you believe White's take regarding Nurmagomedov's future -- might be enough to convince "The Eagle" to postpone retirement in favor of a rematch that could shatter PPV records.
Then there's the possibility of a second crossover boxing match, this time against Filipino legend Manny Pacquiao, who recently signed with McGregor's management team. All of that amounts to the possibility of McGregor authoring a huge year both commercially and critically as the face of combat sports.
But none of that happens without first defeating Poirier in a matchup where McGregor has openly wondered whether his opponent's incredible resume since their first meeting -- including absolute wars with Justin Gaethje, Eddie Alvarez, Max Holloway and Dan Hooker -- turns out to be more of a negative than a positive.
"He has had some tough fights that can go one of two ways," McGregor said. "The pros is that he got experience in there. The cons is that it can damage the body. I know he had hip surgery recently. I think his skill set is pretty similar and I don't think it's very different, to be honest. I am very confident. All of his reactions are very similar. It's just Octagon time.
"Dustin does not know what he's in for, that's for damn sure. Although, I think he does know what he's in for, to best honest. We fought before but it's even more ferocious this time. I'm going to put my work on him and get him out of there in spectacular fashion."
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